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Effective Note-Taking Strategies

This guide contains information on how to effectively take notes for future reference.

The Five "R's" of Note-Taking

Use the Five "R's" to properly take, use, and review your notes for a course "Academic & Career Development Center," n.d.):

 

Record: Type or write down all the significant and meaningful information you hear during a lecture or lesson.  It can be facts, concepts, equations, or key terms/definitions.  Make sure you record them legibly.

Reduce: After the lesson or lecture, read through the notes and summarize them mentally in your own words.  This reinforces the information, improves understanding, and strengthens your memory.

Recite: Without having your notes in front of you, try and repeat as much of the information from them as you can.  Make note of any key facts or concepts that you missed.

Reflect: Compare your own questions and opinions about the subject to your notes.  Record any questions that arise.

Review: Read through your notes often to retain the information that you have learned.  The more often you review them, the faster you will remember.

 

These steps are applicable to all disciplines because they help you learn information faster, regardless of topic!

General Note-Taking Strategies

Aside from the Five "R's", there are several ways you can take notes.  Different techniques may be more effective depending on the course or subject area.  The following are commonly used strategies for taking notes in an academic setting:

  • Outlines: Highlights the most important ideas with Roman numerals and organizes subtopics below each Roman numeral.  Each subtopic is indented slightly to the right, with more specific subtopics indented the farthest.
    • Useful for: Chronological material and information that can be categorized into main ideas.
  • Lists: a sequential listing of ideas, concepts, or words that are presented in the lecture, presentation, lesson, or resource.  They can be short phrases, words, or longer paragraphs that describe each concept ("Chapter 11: Note-Taking Strategies," n.d.).
    • Useful for: Summarizing content that is logical and already well organized.
  • Writing directly on class material: This is when an instructor provides a handout, study guide, or copies of presentation slides that contain content from a particular lesson.  It can mirror the content in the lecture or be summaries of main ideas.  During the lecture, you add any missing content or gaps that the handout does not cover.
    • Useful for: PowerPoint presentations and lectures
  • Flowcharts: Consists of boxes and lines to illustrate a series of events or processes.
    • Useful for: Illustrating scientific processes and showing the cause/effect of (historical) events.
  • Mind/Concept Maps: A visual aid where you place the central theme or idea of a lecture/lesson in the center of a page and draw branches from it with lines.  Each line leads to a different word or phrase relevant to the central idea in the center.  The lines connect the concepts to one another.
    • Useful for: Demonstrating relationships between concepts and bouncing between different ideas.

The video below from Southern New Hampshire University provides a nice overview of note-taking and note-taking resources at the college level.

Cornell Notes

Cornell Notes are a special note-taking strategy where you create columns with key words and concepts along with summaries to accompany them.  The technique involves separating your notebook paper or document into three sections:

  • Note-taking area: The area where you record important information pertaining to the lecture or lesson.  It can include key concepts and definitions, equations or formulas, information that the instructor repeats, and information from other class materials (handouts, study guides, textbook chapters, etc.)
  • Cue column: After writing in the note-taking area, condense the information by writing it in the cue column as short bullet points.  You can also write down any questions you have here.
  • Summaries box: Looking at both columns, summarize the entirety of the notes in 1-3 sentences.

This process makes you recite the content more than once and in your own words, which helps you remember the information long-term.

 

Below is a visual template of what Cornell Notes look like:

cornell notes diagram

 

For more details on using the Cornell Notes method, check out the video below from Cornell University.

Taking Notes in the Humanities and Social Sciences

When taking notes on topics in the humanities or social sciences:

  • Take notes not only from class and lectures, but from supplemental materials such as textbooks and articles.
  • Include any main ideas or conclusions that are made from class discussions.
  • If you have any personal opinions or perspectives about a specific concept, mark it down in your notes.
  • If the content is historical in nature, record notes chronologically to keep them organized.
  • Record definitions of key phrases, theories, or terms.
  • Paraphrase main concepts or events in your own words.

Taking Notes in STEM

When taking notes on topics in STEM (Gerver, 2018):

  • Use graph paper as needed, especially if the course or lecture involves graphs and charts.
  • Use an equation editor (Microsoft Word, etc.) to write out math formulas and create mathematical expressions.  It can be difficult to write them out, especially if the formula or expression contains abnormal shapes or symbols.
  • Include sample problems that apply the lesson's main formula or principle.
  • When drawing graphs or charts, use different colors to highlight important sections.
  • Become familiar with using graph drawing programs and websites if you prefer to create your graphs electronically.
  • If you are reviewing your notes after class and do not understand something, mark it down so you can ask the instructor during the next class.